If you’re searching for that one bucket list destination this year where ancient history comes alive, set your sights on a visit to southern Jordan’s lost civilization of Petra. Even in the Middle East – chock-full of historical superlatives – the rose-hued capital city of ancient Arab trader nations is a standout. With an awe-inspiring location among red desert canyons, extraordinary rock-cut architecture, and exquisite stone work, it’s no wonder that Petra is counted among UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
To help with your planning, we’ve assembled what you need to know to fully enjoy the Middle East’s most gasp-worthy hidden gem. Treat yourself this year; make a visit to Petra.
Background and a brief history
Petra lies within the red sandstone gorges of the mountainous eastern flank of the Arabah Valley in southern Jordan. While the broader area includes evidence of human habitation since 7,000 BCE, archeological evidence collected thus far suggests that Petra has hosted settlers since the 2nd century BCE.
Petra, originally known as Raqmu, was the capital city of the Nabataeans, an ancient, semi-nomadic Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant. The tribes managed a loose network of local trading routes, oasis settlements, and agricultural patches with Raqmu its central and largest hub.
Thanks to its beneficial positioning adjacent to mountain clusters, the city was relatively easy to defend; additionally, a sophisticated water conduit system supported long periods of sustained growth. At its economic and cultural height during the 1st century BCE, when the famous Khazneh tomb for King Aretas IV was built, Raqmu supported a population of about 20,000 inhabitants.
During this time, the kingdom held loose ties to Rome. As a so-called “client state,” Nabataea was obliged to provide military infantrymen when Rome called, but otherwise remained independent. This lasted until 106 CE, when Rome annexed the area and redubbed Raqmu Arabia Petraea or Petra.
Over the next few centuries, the city declined as the region was folded into more western-leaning sea trade routes headquartered in Rome. A series of earthquakes in 363 CE did severe damage to Petra’s infrastructure, furthering its demise. Other than a few churches built during the Byzantine era, the city was largely abandoned by the early 7th century. It wasn’t until 1812 that the city was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
What to see
The wonder of Petra is not only its dramatic location among red sandstone cliffs, narrow gorges, tall ridges, and high plateaus, but the sheer ingenuity and beauty of the Nabataean architectural mind at work. Indeed, the city’s structures are some of the most exquisite examples of rock-cut architecture, masonry, and ancient water collection and delivery known to man. Temples, tombs, alters, storerooms, cisterns, tunnels, and dams are scattered across the site; while we can’t cover all of the attractions here, we’ve highlighted a few that simply can’t be missed.
Approach the city from the 1.2 km-long, dim, twisting path through the gorge known appropriately as Al Siq (“the shaft”). Follow the rust and cider-hued walls that weave in and out and reach a disorienting 80 feet high. Just above the ground, carved channels which brought fresh water from nearby springs to the city center are visible. As you approach the last bend, the city’s sites are slowly revealed. In all, it is a wow-worthy journey that provides a captivating introduction to Petra.
Al Khasneh or the Treasury
As one of Petra’s most iconic sites – and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World – Al Khasneh (aka the Treasury) does not disappoint. Legend has it that the Treasury received its moniker from bandits using a large urn on the second floor to hide their booty. Bullet damage to the urn is thought to be from early 20th century Bedouins, hoping to fight off bandits and capture any remaining hidden treasure.
Built to house the tomb of Nabataean King Aretas IV in the 1st century CE, Al Khasneh is a masterwork of intricate Greek-like pillars, plinths, and mythological statuary. Forged in red sandstone and soaring 140 feet to the heavens, the site is breathtaking in scope and detail. The structure’s sheer scale and historic significance rendered us nearly speechless and required a moment or two of reflection to fully absorb.
High Palace of Sacrifice
Petra includes a series of high-elevation sites, most requiring vertigo-inducing climbs. If you can manage them, you’ll be well rewarded. One hundred flights of (thankfully) well-maintained stairs lead to the hilltop altar that includes a series of carved 18-foot obelisks, a sacrificial platform (for animals), and an adjacent area for cleansing and feasting. Drains were also used to channel sacrificial animal blood out of the area.
Dedicated to Nabataean gods Dushara and Al’Uzza, the site is as celestial as any you will witness, with sweeping panoramic views of Petra below. Expect the ascent to take about 45 minutes by foot with an easier descent on the other side of the mountain.
Ad Deir, or the Monastery
Ad Deir (the Monastery) is another of Petra’s astounding architectural wonders. Located in the foothills northwest of the city center, it is believed that the Monastery was first constructed in 3 BCE (also in the sandstone cliffs) as a monument and tomb for Nabataean King Obodas I. Later reused as a church and monastery during the Byzantine period, the building sports a vast façade stretching a colossal 145 feet high by 160 feet wide.
Elements typical of Hellenistic architecture are evident, including Corinthian-like columns (for show only) and Doric entablatures. There are also a few elements styled in a more Mesopotamian fashion, such as the singular large entrance and plain alcoves carved into the façade.
The site is reached by traipsing up an 800-step rock-cut staircase. Allow about 40 minutes for the relatively easy, but prolonged climb. There are two viewing areas on adjacent cliff tops (factor in another 10 minutes to reach these) that afford some of the best views of Petra, along with neighboring sites Jebel Haroun and Waid Araba.
Street of Façades
Back with your feet firmly on the ground, head over to the Street of Façades – a canyon of sorts that includes more than 40 massive tombs (presumably holding some of the city’s most elite inhabitants) and a handful homes with something akin to crow-stepped gables. A few of the tombs are worth viewing up close. Number 67 (the first tomb) includes its funeral chamber on the second story while number 70 is unusual in that it’s free standing.
Finally, high along the walls water channels are evident; moving toward the city center at a slight angle, the pipes leverage gravitational force to deliver water at pressure at its terminus.
Petra by Night
To add to the magic of your visit to Petra, consider the Petra by Night experience, offered Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings from 8:30pm to 10:30pm. Accompanied by an official guide, you’ll walk through Al Siq to the Treasury, lit up with over 1,500 candles for an otherworldly immersive experience. It’s well worth the additional 17 JD ($24) to view this extraordinary monument in what feels like a mystical setting. Tickets are available at the Visitor’s Center and require the purchase of a day ticket.
What you need to know
The main path through Petra’s city center is approximately 2.5 miles, and if you choose to take in the amazing views from atop some of the taller sites (we say, yes), expect a fair amount of vertical walking in addition to the horizontal kind. We suggest that you allow at least a full day, if not two, for a fully immersive visit.
Consider a guided tour
While you can explore Petra on your own, we believe you’ll get a lot more out of the experience with a knowledgeable guide who can provide context, detail, and tips to enhance your visit. Official guides are available at the Visitor’s Center and range from 50-100 JD ($70-140) depending on whether you stay along the man path or add sites, like the Monastery or High Palace of Sacrifice, that are farther afield.
Unofficial guides are available within the city at lower costs, though there is no guarantee of the quality of the experience provided.
When to go and what to wear
Spring and autumn months are preferable for a visit to Petra thanks to cooler temperatures and smaller crowds. Regardless, it can get warm in the sun and we suggest wearing loose fitting cotton clothing, a hat, and sunscreen. Layering with an extra jacket and vest will be important for when the sun goes down – and throughout the day in cooler months. It can get downright cold after October and before May. Always wear comfortable, thick-soled walking shoes and bring plenty of water.
Tickets cost from 50-60 JD ($70-85) depending on whether you are planning a one, two, or three day visit to Petra. If you are planning to stay in Jordan for at least three nights and are not part of a tour, we recommend purchasing a Jordan Pass. For 70-80 JD ($99-113) the pass offers entry to 36 attractions, including Petra, and waives the required Jordan entrance visa of 40 JD ($56) altogether. You can purchase a Jordan Pass in advance or upon arrival to Jordan.
Additional fees apply for carriage rides through Al Siq to the city entrance and for donkey rides throughout the site. A note about the animals on site: There is concern that some of the animals appear in poor shape, and we agree – though we understand that measures are being taken to improve this situation. Still, we would encourage you to hire them only if absolutely necessary.
The Visitor’s Center, where you can purchase tickets, is open from 6am to 6pm in the summer and 6am to 4pm during winter. To avoid the heat, try an early morning arrival or for something really unique, arrive in the late afternoon, around 3pm and stay until sunset. As the sun sinks below the horizon the rock colors deepen to a rich crimson and ruby.
Food, drink, and other comforts
You’ll be glad to know there are a number of stands selling snacks and drinks and souvenirs as well as a restaurant within the Petra site. The Basin Restaurant, near to the Monastery, serves a buffet lunch including a wide range of salads, grilled chicken, pasta, and vegetarian selections in a beautiful, tented outdoor setting. Restrooms are available at the Visitor’s Center and in a few areas throughout the site. Best to go before you start.
Finally, be sure and bring Jordanian cash with you to the site. Snack and souvenir vendors do not take credit cards.
To learn more about planning a visit to Petra, see the official Petra visitor’s site online.